Florida court ruling may spare scores on death row from execution

TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court cleared the way on Friday for scores of death row inmates to receive new sentencing hearings, while denying such relief in older cases, in a set of rulings likely to fuel the U.S. debate about fairness in capital punishment.

The fate of 384 inmates on Florida's death row, the nation's second largest, has been uncertain since the U.S. Supreme Court in January struck down the state's penalty sentencing laws.

The high court found that Florida gave judges powers that juries should wield in determining death eligibility. The ruling left open what should happen to inmates previously sentenced.

The answer hinges on timing, Florida's Supreme Court found.

Death row inmates could see resentencing hearings if their cases were not finalized by 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling marking a precursor to its Florida decision.

Cases finalized before 2002 were not entitled to such relief, the state high court said in another ruling on Friday.

"Some people are going to live, and some are going to die, based on where they fall on a timeline," said Karen Gottlieb, co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation, based at Florida International University Law school in Miami.

While precise numbers were unknown, the court noted that just under half of current death row inmate's cases were final at the time of the high court ruling in Ring v. Arizona, which addressed death penalty sentencing.

The nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center estimates that 75 to 100 inmates Florida should qualify for resentencing hearings. More than 200, however, would be denied by timing.

"Under these decisions, whether a Florida death row prisoner lives or dies doesn't depend on whether his or her trial was fair," said its executive director, Robert Dunham. "It depends on when the trial was unfair."

He said inmates with older cases could still seek recourse, with many death penalty issues still unresolved in Florida.

The state rewrote its death sentencing laws after the high court's ruling. But the Florida Supreme Court overturned the new law in October because it does not require juries to unanimously recommend capital punishment.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said her office was reviewing Friday's rulings.

The decisions could allow the state to resume scheduling executions, which have been on hold in Florida for most of the year amid legal uncertainty.

(Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Alistair Bell)